It’s sometimes tacitly assumed that detained members of terror networks will not cooperate with their jailers under any circumstances. That can lead to the conclusion that torture or abuse will be the only ways to gain useful information from such detainees. I’ve run across a couple of stories that suggest this isn’t true.
What would Allah do?
After the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and then 9/11, the leaders of the Republic of Yemen were looking for ways to navigate between the rock of deep Yemeni-Al Qaeda connections and the hard place of looming U.S. military action.
Dire necessity was the mother to a novel approach by Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In “What Would Allah Do?” Legal Affairs senior editor Nadya Labi describes it, following the example of one Nasser Ahmed Nasser Al-Qadhi.* The hardened “Afghani Arab” (i.e., graduate of the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan) was a familiar of the Cole conspirators, and had spent two years in jail after his arrest in 2000. Then one day in August, 2002 he was brought before Yemeni authorities:
But instead of being attached to electrodes or shipped to Guantanamo Bay, where his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan had been jailed, al-Qadhi was brought before a handful of Muslim clerics who sat at a long table. They invited him to have a debate. They wanted to talk about the Koran, and to prove to him that the holy text did not condone violence against non-Muslims. Then they proffered a remarkable deal.If you convince us that we’re wrong, they said, we’ll join you. But if we convince you that you’re wrong, and if you repent, you’ll go free.
The dialogue proved interesting. After rebutting the prisoners’ assertions that Yemen was not a Muslim state, the presiding judge, Hamoud al-Hitar, got down to brass tacks, asking whether it was “halal” (allowed) or “haram” (forbidden) to kill non-Muslims?” Citing 124 verses of Koran against the Islamist’s single justifying passage, al-Hitar concluded that any visitor to Yemen was protected:
“Even if he comes from Tel Aviv,” al-Hitar reminded them, “nobody is allowed to attack him.”
While Koranic disputes were the heart of the dialogue, the simple fact that there was a dialogue may have “defused” the Islamist:
Al-Hitar’s words were having an effect, but something else was also at work. Al-Qadhi had gone to jihad on behalf of clerics who had preached that, “Anyone who is not with me is my enemy.” Yet here was his enemy, allowing him to read the Koran. Torture he thought he could handle, if it came to that, but kindness was disarming. His thinking began to shift, he said, as he contemplated a future with more possibilities than “you kill me or I kill you.”
Within four months, Al-Qadhi had renounced terrorism and was released into a kind of permanent probation/surveillance with mandatory return visits to the chief judge.
Not all Yemeni prisoners get this chance — those with “blood on their hands” don’t get the benefit of this Islamic quasi-parole board. Also, critics dispute the successes al-Hitar claims — cells exposed, lack of recidivism — and decry the secrecy and possible favoritism of the program. For that matter, al-Qadhi’s own history and views wouldn’t pass muster with most Americans today. He maintains that “America is coming closer to its end,” has confessed to knowing both U.S.S. Cole and 9/11 terrorists, and still respects Osama Bin Laden as a “good person.” But good person or not, al-Qadhi apparently hasn’t re-joined Bin Laden’s fight, either.
The FBI agent from Mars
You don’t have to have an judge versed in Islamic theology to make headway with Islamist terrorists, though. The American Prospect’s Jason Vest interviewed an FBI agent, Jack Cloonan, who had similar success getting a terrorist to not just lay down his weapons, but also assist the prosecution of the Nairobi U.S. embassy bombers. From “Pray and Tell“:
Contrary to views in some circles that every al-Qaeda member or radical Islamist is so beset by zealotry as to be beyond appeals to reason or humanity, Cloonan, in the course of his investigation, concluded that Kherchtou — whose Kenyan apartment was used to develop the film the Nairobi cell shot in preparation for the embassy bombing there — cared at least as much about his family as he did the cause of Wahabbist jihad.
Moroccan intelligence service had detained Kherchtou for deportation to the U.S.; Cloonan met with Kherchtou (who he called “Joe”) in a “safe house” in Rabat:
“The setting was beautiful,” Cloonan recalled. “It was this grand house with stables out back, gazelles bouncing in the background, palm trees, three-course meals — I was probably more in danger of getting gout from all the rich food than anything else while I was there. “We advised [Kherchtou] of his rights. We told him he could have a lawyer anytime, and that he could pray at any time he wanted. We were letting the Moroccans sit in on this, and they were dumbfounded.” [...]
“We spent a lot of time talking about his family, and how disillusioned he was based on the brothers’ treatment of them, and from there he really began to open up,” Cloonan recalled. “The critical moment was when Pat Fitzgerald told Joe, ‘Here’s the deal: You will come to the U.S. voluntarily; you will plead guilty to conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad; your exposure is anywhere from zero to life, no promises.’ I instinctively reached for my briefcase, figuring it was over, but then I added something. I looked at him and I said, ‘Before you answer, I think you should go pray. After 10 days with us, I think you have a sense of who we are and what we’re about — you know you would not be treated this way by other folks. You may go to prison, but you have the chance to start your life over again, to get rid of this anxiety, to stop running. And I think you should do this for your wife and children.’
“So he went off to pray. Meanwhile, the colonel from the Moroccan internal service just looked at us like we were from Mars. But Joe came back and said, ‘OK.’”
(By the way: yes, that Patrick Fitzgerald. The guy is everywhere.) Kherchtou was to yield valuable information and sworn testimony about how Al Qaeda operates — “including the group’s interest in using suicide-piloted planes as bombers.” Fairly successful information gathering, no? In the right hands, data like that could obviously save thousands of lives.
I’m certainly not advocating we find more beautiful villas in Morocco to pamper former terrorists with. Nor do I imagine that every member of a hard-core terror cell will ultimately listen to reason or counterarguments.
But neither al-Qadhi or Kherchtou were innocents pulled off the street, or low-level supporters who just put up someone for the night. They were the real deal — and they still wound up cooperating. Both in Yemen and in Morocco, it seems like just talking to these men and figuring them out was much, much, much more productive than the notorious alternatives reported from Bagram, Guantanamo, and elsewhere.
* I’ve mentioned this Yemeni “Islamic rehab” (to coin a phrase) approach before myself, having come across a December 2003 BBC report about it (they gave the judge’s name as Humoud Hattar). I was more “glass half-empty” about it then, although Yemeni officials apparently agree about keeping an eye on parolees.